Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Guns in African History: The Examples of Central Africa and Nigeria

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Guns in African History: The Examples of Central Africa and Nigeria

Article excerpt

Giacomo Macola. 2016. The Gun in Central Africa: A History of Technology and Politics,

Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. 249 pp.

Saheed Aderinto. 2018. Guns and Society in Colonial Nigeria: Firearms, Culture and Public

Order, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 300 pp.

Guns have played an important and deadly role in African History. Relevant themes include the gun-slave cycle of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the superiority of European firepower produced by new weapons such as the Maxim Gun during the "Scramble for Africa," and the proliferation of small arms such as the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle in parts of post-colonial Africa. Moving beyond these well-known examples, historians Giacomo Macola and Saheed Aderinto have written books that seek to use the gun as a vehicle to explore broader aspects of the history of different parts of Africa.

Macola's book looks at the development of a "gun society" in the interior of Central Africa, particularly the savannah region that now comprises Zambia, Malawi, and the southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), during the second half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. According to the author, "a gun society is one in which firearms are put to momentous productive, military and/or other symbolic uses, over a sustained period of time and by a politically or numerically significant portion of the population" (p. 19). Macola criticizes previous works on the history of technology in Africa, particularly the few related to imported firearms, for engaging in technological determinism in that African societies are seen as passively receiving and being moulded by technological innovation. The recent work of William Storey, which looks at the relation of gun ownership and trade to the rise of a racial hierarchy in Southern Africa, is criticized for relying on colonial sources and therefore failing to explore the adoption of guns within African societies. (1) The central theme of Macola's "culturally sensitive" (p. 163) study is that the different meanings and functions of guns adopted by people in Central Africa "were shaped by pre-existing sociocultural relations and political interests" (p. 30). The author intends to use the gun as an example of technology through which to observe important factors in the history of Central Africa. A secondary aim is to revive interest in pre-colonial African history which engendered a great deal of scholarship from the 1960s to 1980s, the decades immediately following decolonization, but which has faded in recent years.

Macola's book begins with an "unashamedly encyclopedic" (p. 30) survey to introduce non-specialists to the pre-colonial history of the interior and southern portion of Central Africa. The subsequent chapters focus on the history of the gun in specific areas. Chapter Two looks at the upper Zambezi River in what is now western Zambia where, during the 1800s, the Lozi Kingdom did not initially adopt imported firearms because of the late arrival of the Atlantic trade and the fact that the Lozi did not export slaves but utilized them internally. After several decades of rule by the invading Kololo who also did not use guns extensively, the re-established Lozi kings of the late nineteenth century sought to centralize control of firearms, which became symbols of royalty and modernity. Nearby, the decentralized Kaonde and Luvale people, during the late nineteenth century, began to use guns as tools for hunting, symbols of manhood, and a form of currency. Looking at why such communities prized apparently obsolete muzzle-loaders, Macola explains that these represented an "accessible technology" (p. 59) as they were made with soft iron that could be mended locally.

The third chapter looks at the Yeke state, located in what is now Katanga in southern DRC, which was founded by the upstart invader Msiri in the 1850s and 1860s and used imported firearms to engage in the slave and ivory trades. …

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